Welcome to Isle, a land of fantasy that existed long before there were such things. Surrounded by vast oceans and dotted with thick forests, Isle was a land in which all beings lived together. There were gods and ghosts dwelling with the Old Ones, the wise ancient ancestors. During this period, the Book of Suns began its life, though little was known about its contents. The mighty marriage between Sun and Moon begins an adventure never seen before.
About the Author
Nancy Springer is the award-winning author of more than fifty books, including the Enola Holmes and Rowan Hood series and a plethora of novels for all ages, spanning fantasy, mystery, magic realism, and more. She received the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for Larque on the Wing and the Edgar Award for her juvenile mysteries Toughing It and Looking for Jamie Bridger, and she has been nominated for numerous other honors. Springer currently lives in the Florida Panhandle, where she rescues feral cats and enjoys the vibrant wildlife of the wetlands.
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The White Hart
The Book of Isle Trilogy: Book One
By Nancy Springer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Nancy Springer
All rights reserved.
It was a night of the dark of the moon, and darker yet within the narrow tower of Myrdon. Ellid shivered in her scant bed of short straw as much from dark as from cold. Never had she been so benighted. In her father's great hall the torches and tapers flared always to ward off the things that moved in the night: the wailing white ladies and the treacherous pouka who lured unwary travelers to death in pits or dismal fens. The black spaces of night swirled with such as these, and in the lofty chamber of her captivity Ellid sensed the swift denizens of air all about her. Naked as she was in the abyss of night, she shrank from their presence to no avail.
Yet when she heard noises of scraping and knocking close at hand, Ellid did not scream. Not for any peril would she have stooped to summon the rough men who laughed and feasted below. She only stiffened and hearkened intently. The sounds came from the high, barred window, now only a memory in the gloom. "Who is there?" Ellid whispered, and started violently when a soft answer came through the dark.
"A friend," the voice replied, a manly voice but sweet as singing. "Pray, lady, make no cry."
Hanging between hope and consternation, Ellid kept silence. She heard a grinding noise as the bars came loose and a thump as the stranger dropped to the floor. He moved toward her uncertainly, then stopped.
"Lady," he said in low tones, "it is black as Pel's Pit in here; I must make a light. Do not be afraid."
Ellid stared. "Mothers protect me!" she breathed. A pair of shining supple hands took form in the gloom, hands rimmed with ghostly light. Pale flames wavered at the fingertips. The hands cupped and lifted; Ellid glimpsed a face behind them, dark hollows of eyes and a chiseled jaw. The jaw tightened as the hands dropped.
"The vermin!" muttered the visitant. "That they must strip you!"
He came closer until he could touch the rough wall beside her; his hands left their light on the stone, like the specter of a star. By its faint glow Ellid could see the stranger but dimly. Still she deemed that he was slender and only little taller than herself. He knelt before her.
"This will not hurt," he said in his low, melodious voice, and she felt his fingers on her wrist. They were warm, as flesh of man is warm; she took some comfort in that. Inexplicably the fetters dropped from her arm. The stranger rose and stepped back from her. Ellid crouched against the stone like a creature at bay. Even naked as she was, she thought better of her own luck than of this eerie visitor in the night. He was no warrior in size; she could rush him, stun him against the stone perhaps, if he be in fact of human kind ... But even as she narrowed her eyes to spring, he pulled off his tunic and offered it silently to her.
She stood and put on the rough garment. It reached scarcely to her knees, but its warmth was like an embrace. The stranger brought a coil of rope and slipped a loop around her.
"I shall lower you slowly," he told her. "Feel your way with care—and unless all ill should chance, await me at the bottom. Are you ready?"
She knew now that she was obliged to trust him. She scrambled up and out the window without a word, hastening lest he should try to touch her and help her. Not even stumps of bars were in the window to hinder her. She clung to the sill as the rope tautened, then leaned against its slender strength as she felt her way downward. For the first time that night Ellid was thankful for the dark, not only that it hid her escape but that she might not see the dizzying drop below her. She strove not to think of it, nor of the weird hands that supported her, but of her enemies, the men of Myrdon. She went cannily, skirting windows, hugging the wall. When she felt cool earth under her bare feet at last, she tested it for long, incredulous moments before she loosened the rope from her shoulders at last.
Ellid gave a tug, and felt the answering tug from far above. She could not have said why she did not hasten away. Far better even to stumble alone through the night, many would have said, than to cleave to a warlock, one whose hands broke iron and shot fire. But it was not for cowardice that Ellid was called daughter to Pryce Dacaerin. She held the rope taut and awaited him to whom she owed some debt of thanks; she awaited one with warm hands and a soft voice.
Almost as quickly as her thoughts, he was beside her, skimming down the rope. To her renewed astonishment he pulled it down after him, so that it came tumbling about him. Quickly he coiled it and stowed it over his shoulder. Then, reaching surely even in the midnight darkness, he took her hand and started away. No speck of light showed on the walls; most likely the sentries had all joined the drunken feast that resounded from the great hall beyond the tower. The gates were barred, of course. Ellid's strange escort lifted the heavy beam and gently shoved open the timbered doors. Then he and the lady slipped through, and no cry followed them.
The first faint light of dawn found them leagues away, for the stranger walked quickly and surely even in the densest shadow of the trees. Ellid followed close behind, unable to see the sharp flints which cut into her bare feet, head lowered against branches which threatened to pierce an eye. The gray shade which presently filtered into the Forest showed her only the back of him who walked before her, naked above leather breeches and smooth as steel. But as they topped a ridge, quite suddenly they met the rising sun. It blazed full on their faces as the ground dropped away at their feet. Ellid lifted her arms thankfully, but her companion winced and turned away. "Come," he said. "All the world can see us here."
He plunged down the steep slope, and she followed, regarding him curiously. He was slender, and quite young, perhaps as young as she. His wide-set eyes were as dark and glowing as coals. His hair was shining black, and his skin lustrous pale, like moonlight; his blood pulsed like a tide within. She had seen his lip come flashing red as he bit it. His face was faultless and strange, like a face in a dream. Ellid had never seen such stark beauty in a man; even in the daylight she looked askance at him.
In the shadows of the deep ravine they found a narrow stream. The youth knelt to fill his flask. Ellid sat and dabbled in the water with her smarting feet.
"Does the light hurt you?" she asked, breaking her long silence.
"I shall grow accustomed to it in time," the other replied gruffly. "Still, we must soon find shelter, my lady. Light is unlucky for the hunted."
Ellid inwardly steeled herself and struggled to her feet. But the search was not long. At the top of the next rise grew a grove of tall fir trees, with branches that swept heavily to the ground. Beyond was a sunlit space. The stranger lifted a thick green limb for Ellid to creep beneath.
"This is well," he said as he came in beside her. "We can see what comes to all sides. My lady, will you eat?" He offered her a small cake of oats and honey, such as the countryfolk placed on the ancient shrines. Ellid looked at it in surprise, but ate it gratefully.
"I owe you many thanks," she said as she finished, "for freeing me."
Her companion made a sound of genuine sorrow. "Ah, lady," he told her intensely, "I would have helped you days ago! I have followed since the day they stole you from your father's demesne ... Strong towers of stone make men careless, but on the road their guard was good. I could not get close."
The guard had indeed been good. Ellid's face twisted wryly at the thought of the ten days' journey in the shameful cart, the jeers, the cuffs, the floggings and the stinking food. The first day they had cropped her hair to humiliate her. And at journey's end they had stripped her even of her humble shift ... Her face flamed to remember it. The eyes that met hers were clouded with misery.
"My lady, did they ravish you indeed?"
Ellid laughed harshly. "Nay! Nay, that at least they did not. To men such as these, spoiled meat is of no account, and I dare say they think my worthiness to my father is the same. So they took care to keep the wares whole, though they were none too gentle in the transport."
"And I none too gentle in my rescue," the dark-eyed stranger added bitterly. "To you who deserve all good, I have offered a beggar's shirt and a borrowed crust and the hard stones for treading."
"Ellid Lightwing the bards have called me! Could they but see me now!" Ellid smiled ruefully at her painful, bloodied feet. "Yet my lot has bettered a thousandfold. I owe you all thanks." She spoke to him quite courteously. "What may I name you, who have befriended me?" But he turned away his raven-dark eyes.
"I answer to Sirrah," he muttered, "like other sons of men."
Ellid frowned in puzzlement and said no more, for she knew she would give him no slave's title. The April sun was warm through the fir boughs, and the thick bed of their dropped needles was soft. Ellid stretched out her aching limbs. As she dozed off to sleep she saw the black-haired youth settle himself against the trunk of the tree, watching over her.
Hours later she awoke, alerted by some slight sound or sense of danger. She did not need her companion's hand on her arm to warn her to keep silence. On the hillside below rode the scouts of Myrdon, lazily probing the bushes with their spears. Tensely watching, Ellid could not doubt that they made their path toward the firs. To bide or to flee? Both seemed hopeless. But even as Ellid clenched herself in despair, the approaching men shouted and swerved from their course. In the valley beyond, a hart had broken cover. Ellid gaped; the deer was pure blazing white with a shine like a silver crown on its head. It was the loveliest creature she had ever seen. It posed like a carven thing for a moment before it flitted away, and all the riders of Myrdon galloped after it.
"So lightly are the sons of men turned from their intentions," the dark-eyed youth remarked dryly.
"Will you sleep now?" Ellid asked coldly. "I will watch." Her heart ached for the fleet white deer.
The stranger did not sleep, but sat silently beside her. Nothing more chanced that afternoon. In the twilight the fugitives crept forth, and discovered that they had sheltered in a sacred grove. The abode of the god was marked with a rough stone altar. Upon it sat some villager's offering of a few of last year's apples, now pecked by birds. The youth gathered them up and offered Ellid one. She creased her brow at him.
"Do you not fear the vengeance of the gods, that you pilfer their viands?"
"Nay, it is well enough," he answered vaguely. "Eat."
She took from his hand what she would not have taken from the shrine even had she been starving. But the food did little to ease her woes that night. Her feet were swollen and oozing, and the wood-soled sandals that her companion had lent her were clumsily large. They tormented her with stumbling and slipping until she returned them to their owner, preferring to brave the rocks. Her escort slowed the pace to ease her, but within a few hours her head swirled with feverish pain. She limped along dazedly, clinging to her companion's belt as much for support as for direction. She scarcely noticed when she fell and struggled to rise. Half-awares, she felt herself gathered up and slung over warm, smooth shoulders. She laid down her head and struggled no more.
Many leagues to the north, Cuin, son of Clarric the Wise, rode through the days beside his grim-faced uncle, Pryce Dacaerin; Pryce of the Strongholds, men named him. They went slowly, for they rode with an army at their backs, and matched their pace to the footpace of the kerns. Cuin chafed at the delay. He ached to speed as fast as horse could take him to the vile tower where Marc of Myrdon made his filthy nest. What might those ruffians be doing to Ellid!
"They will not dishonor her, if it is gold the rat of Myrdon would have from me," Pryce Dacaerin had told him. "Curb yourself, Sister-son."
And most likely it was gold. The whole land of Isle was rife with such extortions. Not within living memory, not since Byve had met his doom, had there been a High King to keep order. Clan holdings and chieftainships and petty kingdoms dotted the land, each within its own fortress and patch of fields; round them all the wildering Forest wrapped its labyrinth. Across it every summer the raiding parties wended like ships across sundering seas ... Perhaps it was not gold that Marc of Myrdon sought, Cuin reflected. Perhaps he would make Ellid a piece in some sneaking game of power, would flaunt her to tweak Dacaerin's nose ... Truly, having once seen her loveliness, could he fail to take her to his bed? Cuin clenched his fists at the thought.
He would gladly take his fair cousin to wife when they had regained her, even if she were dishonored. As he rode, Cuin envisioned her: a tawny sunlit thing, like a forest bird or a fleeting dappled deer. Her ways were free as the wind, headstrong indeed, but she never failed in the courtesy that comes from the heart. They had been good comrades for many years, and though she had not said him ay, still she had not said him nay. Indeed, the whole world expected that they would wed; it might be said that she was his birthright. Cuin's clan still cleaved to the old fashion of reckoning lineage through the woman. Thus he, the sister-son, was heir to his uncle's estate. But by his wedding Ellid, the uncle's child also might share; it was very just. And though Cuin was one who took direction ill, in this thing he was all obedience.
For Ellid born of Eitha had a face like a flower for loveliness and a body like a doe for grace; her mind was steadfast as a sword and her spirit was bright as its skylit blade. Cuin pressed on toward the tower of Myrdon with anguish in his heart, for he loved her well, as he would love her till he died.CHAPTER 2
Ellid awoke to find herself dappled in sunlight, lying beneath a ragged blanket on a thick bed of leaves. Not far away burned a campfire with an iron kettle hung above it. Overhead was a rude roof ... Ellid sat up to look around her, and gasped involuntarily as pain gripped her. The black-haired youth strode toward her from behind a wall of stone.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I ache, that is all." Ellid could see now that she was within a circular building, ruinous and half-open to the weather. Trees waved beyond; more she could not tell. Her rescuer brought her a tin cup of steaming liquid from his kettle. It was good meat broth spiced with herbs. Rabbit meat; she noted the skins stretched for drying nearby.
"The cure for your aches is close at hand," the youth said when she had finished "Lady, let me carry you once again." He lifted her up, blanket and all, and took her outside with graceful ease. Ellid's eyes widened. Before her rose towering spires of chiseled stone, ramparts and parapets and all the halls and chambers of a kingly court and keep: all silent, ravaged by fire and weather and half-hidden by living green. The chamber whence they had come was but a tiny gatehouse, dwarfed by the wall beyond. In some past age this had been a castle such as Ellid had never seen; nay, a city must have peopled these walls. Ten of her father's fortresses would not have made it up.
"What place is this?" she cried.
"Eburacon," the other replied. His soft voice vibrated with the word.
The lost home of the High Kings. Tales of that golden time were but fireside chatter to Ellid. She had paid them small mind, she who lived so ardently in her own era: What did it gain her that the land had not always been beset with petty war? But still the name rang through her like a half-remembered song. She hung silent with the wonder of it as the dark-eyed youth bore her rapidly through the vast and crumbling courtyard.
Presently they came to smooth stone steps descending to a walled grove of silver beech; great boulders of white stone tumbled among the trees. At the bottom of the dell they rounded a corner of stone and came upon a strange, bubbling pool of water in a smooth-worn basin of stone. Wisps of steam rose from the surface. Ellid's companion set her down on the brim and plunged in his fine-molded hands.
"There's marvelous power of strength and healing in this spring," he remarked, "and even were it foul the heat would bake the ache from you. Stay in as long as you like, my lady. There are no eyes to see you here, for this place is well guarded by the shades of the past. And when you are done, call me; I shall be about."
Excerpted from The White Hart by Nancy Springer. Copyright © 1979 Nancy Springer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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